Are Amateurs the Enemy?

There has been much consternation over the last, oh … 15 years … about the rise of the amateur and how he or she is impacting the profession of photojournalism. It is true that may photojournalists succeeded solely on their technical skills as photographers. Those are the ones who are most worried.

As camera technology has advanced, the expertise needed to make high technical quality images has diminished. Today’s cameras combine superb autofocus systems, stunningly accurate exposure systems and stellar chip performance. Many of our skills in reading light, balancing exposure and nailing focus have been automated, enough so that anyone with a large enough credit limit can enter the field in theory.

Over at Time’s Lightbox blog, Olivier Laurent takes on the question of whether amateurs are truly hurting our profession.

The answers may surprise you … and I agree with them. Photojournalism has never been about photography, it has been about story. I tell my students that the two hardest part of this calling have nothing to do with cameras, lenses or software – it’s where to point the camera and when to push the button.

A few years ago, Sprint ran a truly horrifying commercial where they talked about, “a billion roaming photojournalists.” Catchy, perhaps, and the spot has all of the up-swelling music and vibrant images you could ask for. But it was a lie.

Yes, a world full of camera-toting amateurs will capture a wide range of the human experience, but is that photojournalism? When the bombs went off inside the London subway tunnels in 2005 and two people started shooting photos, that was documentation. It was also – and this is not to denigrate the images or the photographers – low hanging fruit. The situation presented itself and they recorded it.

Is reporting something journalism? I have always held that journalism has a higher level of responsibility, to go beyond what happened and explain why it happened and what it means.

Will amateurs do that? Will they put the time into finding the source of stories, the beginnings of an event? No, probably not – they have other jobs and other responsibilities.

So how do we, as a profession of photojournalists, handle this? We do what we have always done – we tell stories that matter.

That’s it, that’s the secret – tell stories that people must see, tell stories that no one else is willing to put the effort into telling. It’s complex and it’s expensive, but more or technically better pictures isn’t the answer, it’s better stories. It’s stories that inform, stories that educate and stories that resonate.